And in My Own Home!
By Michael Koresky
Dir. Darren Aronofsky, U.S., Paramount
The following review contains spoilers.
Darren Aronofsky’s cinema of excess, in which sensation often trumps logic, coherence, or taste, is spoken of by detractors as catastrophically boneheaded and by partisans as thrillingly physical. For those of us who often fall in the former camp, Mother! might pose a challenge, as it’s perhaps the first film in which his penchant for thudding, fraught metaphor feels oddly at one with his stabbing out in all directions. The release of a studio-financed entertainment—and an auteur-driven star vehicle at that—so clearly disinterested in serving audience expectations or desires, is cause to at least take note. Hardly the mere home invasion thriller it’s been marketed as, this is an angry film for an angry time, a heavy, at times lumbering, allegorical work about woman and man, nature and God, painstakingly made from a script the writer-director claims he dashed off in five days; its unrefined, somewhat all-purpose symbolism is evidence of an almost demonic process, and its confusions, self-lacerations, and silliness would be less welcome if Aronofsky hadn’t in the process mounted the most technically impressive filmmaking of his career.
Mother! is a film of intense linearity; its shape lingers after it’s disappeared from the screen. It’s a blank canvas that’s slowly filled in, one element at a time, moving from light to dark, from calmed earth tones to blood and ash. That blank canvas is a remote house with unpainted interior walls. From its windows you can only discern tall grass and trees, and it’s so far off the beaten path that we never see or even hear reference to neighbors. Our protagonist, played by Jennifer Lawrence (unnamed, like all the film’s characters), is working on fixing up the house, though it’s unclear how far along they are in renovations, or how long she and her husband (Javier Bardem, like Aronofsky, 48 years old), a poet with writer’s block, have lived there together. With its unfinished kitchen sink and general lack of furnishings, it cannot have been that long. We come to learn that the house was originally Bardem’s, and that his much younger wife is a more recent addition. It’s a homey, if strangely impersonal place, a mammoth, Victorian-esque structure so generously sized that a visiting stranger, played by Ed Harris, claims to have mistaken it for a bed and breakfast.
Harris’s odd duck, an orthopedic surgeon with a nasty cough, is the first in a series of very bad houseguests, each of whom mysteriously seems to upset only Lawrence, as Bardem keeps making excuses to offer hospitality. The reason for the husband’s leniency seems to be that Harris has revealed himself as a major fan of his poetry, and insists on flattering him and his work. Next to arrive is Harris’s wife, who has come to check up on him; she’s played by Michelle Pfeiffer, in a performance so fleshly and menacing that it makes one wonder why she hasn’t been cast in more villainous roles. She’s an extraordinarily rude visitor, almost comically so, with a penchant for turning Lawrence’s palpable and relatable frustrations back on her, painting her as a failed hostess and an ingrate. In fact, the treatment of Lawrence’s character as such is a crucial motif: a supposed domestic provider, she is time and again, in an increasingly cruel fashion, berated for being unwelcoming. Another clue that something is amiss—and that Aronofsky is perhaps viewing this abode as something more than a literal house—is that multiple times over the course of the film, Lawrence will insist to a stranger that this is her home, only to be met with a rapid, dismissive snicker. Despite Aronofsky’s many instances of aggressive, telegraphed foreboding (he initially relies on too many jump scares), it’s these passing moments that are the most unsettling. Mother! eventually reveals it has bigger fish to fry, but Aronofsky is perhaps on his surest footing when he’s simply charting these cases of epic discourtesy, these transgressions of unspoken social pacts.
As minor aggressions and incivilities escalate—trespasses into forbidden rooms, Pfeiffer prying about Bardem and Lawrence’s flagging sex life and why Lawrence doesn’t want to have children, and one devastatingly broken memento—tensions mount between the two couples. Yet blood isn’t spilled until the next round of the uninvited shows up: Harris and Pfeiffer’s repugnant, bickering sons (real-life brothers Brian and Domhnall Gleeson, in a nice casting touch), who bring their intense, greed-driven battle royale concerning a family will into the house, ending in a vicious Cain-vs.-Abel bludgeoning that forever taints the seemingly heretofore untouched paradise. This shocking moment of fratricide leads to their house being overtaken by a funeral party of black-clad strangers (during which Pfeiffer upbraids ill-prepared Lawrence for her casual, lighter-colored house clothes), which gradually erupts into a squalid bacchanalia of bad behavior that only our star seems to find inappropriate, culminating in some major destruction to the kitchen before the suddenly giddy mourners flee back into the night. In the immediate aftermath, the couple have an unexpected and angry bout of sex, resulting in both her pregnancy and his creative dam burst: a completed poem, scrawled on what seems to be a single sheet of parchment. This also occasions the film’s second movement, set months later, an amplifying of anxiety and horror so extreme and fanciful that we realize the first half had been the relative calm before the storm.
From this point forward, Mother! is so untethered from reality, cinematic or otherwise, that the viewer is all but forced to reckon with it strictly on the level of allegory. Or perhaps forced to sort out which allegory is identifiable and purposeful at any given time: Aronofsky’s ambitions here reveal a fairly coequal plunge into biblical prophecy (from Old Testament furor to New Testament evangelism), environmental metaphor, and, most explicitly, the labors of artistic creation. On this last point, Mother! is most fascinatingly solipsistic, for Bardem’s character, a frustrated artist who becomes a kind of poet prophet, is a heinous figure born from his creator’s demurring egotism. As the film descends into chaos, Bardem’s super-poet, unwilling to devote himself to the needs of his wife and home in the face of enormous success, zealously gives into the greedy, grasping demands of his public—manifest as an ever-multiplying number of succubus-like followers. In the film’s metaphoric equation, this puts at emotional and physical risk the mind, soul, and, body of the woman he claims to love. It’s the kind of self-mythologization masquerading as self-critique that could make M. Night Shyamalan’s eyes burn with envy. On this level, Mother! can feel like a disingenuous apologia, portraying Lawrence’s character as the victim of neglect and increasingly repugnant violence bred out of her husband’s indulging in his own idolatry: a blood-spattered muse.
At the point where Mother! begins to go willingly off the rails, Aronofsky unleashes a sustained torrent of physical incursions that constitute his career’s most compelling passage of filmmaking. Bardem’s character has suddenly gone from having a cult following to being the leader of what looks like an actual cult, yet even this intentional implausibility cannot explain the siege that befalls the house. The ensuing sustained set piece, of a very pregnant Lawrence crawling and careering through the home that’s become a stygian, hellish war zone, is a tour de force of meticulous choreography, like a series of expertly placed bombs going off one by one with horrifying precision. There’s always something jutting or crashing into the frame as the camera follows our beset heroine through the violent maze her house has become; it’s all rigorously disorienting, leading to a Grand Guignol climax of liturgical bloodletting and beastliness that constitutes the most unapologetic turn away from the real in a studio film since the frogs fell in Magnolia.
Aronofsky, naturally given to shock and spectacle, isn’t one to let ideas stew in the mind. He piles on incidents (rather than plot), bodies (rather than characters), until what once had the potential to be a pastoral paradise—that hopeful blank canvas—has become a writhing, grasping, cluttered Bosch-like abyss. The terrors and anxieties of the outside world have been brought to bear on her, dissolving boundaries of space and time even as the film never leaves the confines of this one house.
There’s a primal aspect to the nurturing domesticity of Lawrence’s character, which is in stark contrast to every other person onscreen. On the simplest level, Mother! is film about a woman trying to tend to her garden while fending off marauders set on trampling on her soil. Aronofsky’s penchant for grandiose biblical gesture means there is a natural moralizing tendency that runs throughout his work, palpable in the physical martyrdoms of Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and Black Swan, not to mention his Old Testament extravaganza Noah. He doesn’t do things by half: a revenge fable, his latest is nothing less than an expression of Mother Nature retaliating against those who have plundered and pillaged, raped and ransacked her. That’s a fairly lofty, perhaps ridiculous, thing to dramatize in the literal terms of domestic melodrama. But this is strenuous, kamikaze filmmaking, and at least for two hours Aronofsky persuades that its ends are eternally urgent enough to justify the hyperbolic means.